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Top EU diplomat urges calm amid Temple Mount tensions

Catherine Ashton expresses concern over West Bank settlement approval, Temple Mount clashes

Ilan Ben Zion, a reporter at the Associated Press, is a former news editor at The Times of Israel.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in Jerusalem on October 24, 2012 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in Jerusalem on October 24, 2012 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The European Union’s top diplomat on Friday expressed concern about recent tension at Jerusalem’s Temple Mount and Israel’s approval of construction in the West Bank settlement of Beit El, urging both sides to exercise restraint and prevent further escalations.

Catherine Ashton’s spokesperson said in a statement that the EU’s foreign policy chief was “disturbed by recent events in East Jerusalem,” referring to clashes earlier in the week on the Temple Mount and the detention of a preeminent Muslim cleric.

Israel Police detained the Mufti of Jerusalem, Mohammed Hussein, for questioning on Thursday, and an Israeli official said the Muslim cleric was issued a warning and told to lower tensions a day after Muslim worshipers threw rocks and chairs at tourists visiting the hilltop compound that houses the Al Aqsa Mosque. Israeli authorities also limited access to the contested holy site to Muslim worshipers a day after the flare-up of violence.

Ashton said that “It is essential that access to the holy sites in Jerusalem for peaceful worship for all denominations is fully respected.”

She also voiced concern over the Defense Ministry’s approval of 296 new homes in the West Bank settlement of Beit El on Thursday. “The EU has repeatedly declared settlements to be illegal under international law and to constitute an obstacle to peace,” she said.

The homes slated for construction were part of a 2012 agreement according to which settlers peacefully left their homes at the Ulpana outpost — which an Israeli court determined were built on privately owned Palestinian land — in return for new homes to be rebuilt elsewhere.

US State Department spokesperson Patrick Ventrell responded to a press inquiry Thursday by reiterating President Barack Obama’s stance that Israel “must recognize that continued settlement activity is counterproductive to the cause of peace, and that an independent Palestine must be viable with real borders that have to be drawn.”

“This is something we’ve said many times, and our position hasn’t changed,” Ventrell said.

Both incidents “have increased tensions on the ground and risk undermining current efforts to re-launch peace talks,” Ashton said.

“It is important that those concerned exercise maximum restraint and refrain from any actions which could drive the sides to the conflict further apart.”

AP contributed to this report. 

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